Saturday, October 24, 2015

When words aren't enough / When you can't find the words

I live in a city called Philadelphia. When you view it from above via Google Earth it looks like someone dug out a patch of grass and shoveled gravel and concrete chunks into the hollow. What it looks like from the ground is more difficult to describe.

When you try to describe the sensory ingressions of objects rather than simply naming the objects, you glimpse the degree to which our most foundational technology (language) has estranged us from the pure vibratory profusion of reality. I stand at the corner of 13th and Pine and try to compose a catalogue of what I see without using the following words: Building. Brick. Window. Glass. Street. Asphalt. Sidewalk. Cement. Car. Traffic light.

I have a very hard time of it.

The term "brick building" is a switch. Your eyes pass over B R I C K B U I L D I N G and through the synaesthetic conversion filter mechanism of reading comprehension the visual information becomes the phonemes brɪk bɪldɪŋ, which flick the lever on your personal perceptual stereoscope and pulls up the slide with the picture of the brick building on it—the ideal brick building, the rudimentary, unparticular brick building that's the essence of brick building.

To say that it is fatuous to attempt to convey a scene with reference to sensory experience rather than the labels with which we generalize certain broad categories of sensory experience bespeaks the same kind of bias carried by those who, say, dismiss as outmoded the practice of committing information to memory in an age where most of us carry an auxiliary brain in our pocket.

Western literature is rife with (condescending) praise of the strength and athleticism of "primitive" peoples. Any modern reader can't but be astonished by the ancient Greeks' capacity for retention and recall. The use of any tool atrophies the faculty the tool replaces.

Language is a scalpel applied to the tissues of temporal-material flux in which we exist. As verbal creatures, the world we move through is a tinted glass tunnel looking out to the whirlwind, and over the glass we've imposed neon signs spelling out the names we've ascribed to particular arrangements of sensory events. We often perceive the categories more clearly than the events.

This is a natural consequence of the technology on which all human progress is predicated. This is not to suggest we would be better off without it (indeed we could get by without electricity more easily than we could manage without language), but it is foolish to consider the benefits of a technology without at least taking note of the costs.

Now let's imagine. Let's imagine another moment at another location (say, Third and Market) and I'm going to attempt to circumvent the restrictions of a palette consisting of imagistic flashcards and try to use the words at my disposal to convey with precision what's around me.

I find I cannot. I do no have the words at my disposal.

This brick building and that brick building—they're made of different kinds of bricks. What is the word for this sort of brick, the word for that sort of brick? What's the word for the type of trapezoidal metal pole (the kind you've all seen) to which stop signs and no parking signs are mounted? Where do I start with that frieze at the top of that building? How do I describe the shapes? What's it made of? What style or tradition does it represent? Those curlicue adornments on metal gates, what are those called? What the hell is this thing?

I feel like a dullard for not knowing. But was I ever given impetus to learn?

The Sami of Northern Europe have hundreds of words for snow and ice. Their ancestors, living and surviving where they did, had very practical reasons for needing to communicate with each other about snow and ice, about the particularities of events in which frozen water is implicated. 

Language crystallizes around what we deem worth communicating. If one language contains a word for a concept for which no term exists in a different language, it means the one culture had cause to differentiate some particular configuration of the general flux and tag it for future reference, while the other found it unnecessary.

"If you want to know what’s really going on in a society or ideology," Jaron Lanier wrote, "follow the money." And if you want to know the things a culture feels are most significant, follow the vernacular. Find out which words everyone knows.

If most of us don't possess the vocabulary to describe in detail the topography of a city street, that's because those particulars are not important to us. Where there's no words, there's usually a blind spot.

Most of us probably can't go into the woods and identity every tree, bird, or rock we come across. That's fine, we say: we don't live in the woods anymore. We live in towns and cities. But even in a city—a material reflection of ourselves, our needs, desires, and dreams—we find ourselves not really knowing what we're seeing. Or: we're not really seeing it.

This seems as strange to me as looking into the mirror and not being able to make sense of your own eyebrows.


  1. Isn't that word template true of all things? Mention "tree," and a fuzzy green lollipop appears. Telling you of a thicket of honeysuckle by the bank of a river isn't any different from telling you of a few bags of garbage by the side of the road.

    Similarly, it's also impossible to describe a landscape if you bar yourself from words like sky, sun, clouds, mountain, forest, and other useful, straightforward nouns.

    I also don't have a whole lot of respect for the ancient Grecian philosophers' memories, given how much shit they just made up.

    1. Points #1 and #2: It's true. It is impossible to very exactly describe, say, a bush, without creating a description that would take days to write and hours to read. So we resort to generalizations. Categories. But when your interface with reality is mediated by language and its generalizations, the arrangement of the world seems to correspond to your linguistic order. Your experiences are filtered. Of course, that's also why any of us are able to operate effectively in the world—we've put it in order for ourselves.

      Point #3: I didn't mean just the philosophers. They weren't illiterate, but the ancient Greeks were primarily an oral society, living in a time and place where writing anything down was time consuming and costly. When most information coming your way isn't written down, and taking notes isn't an option, you develop great big brain muscles for listening and remembering.

    2. Maybe a worthy goal is to learn how to articulate deeply with words we can count on others knowing.

      My foreign languages studies suggest English has way more vocabulary breadth by far than most European languages; they rely more on constructions and nuance, whereas we'll just have a whole new word. (Probably has something to do with English's mongrel heritage.)

    3. Hey, it worked for Borges and Hemingway.

  2. But isn't this what specialised knowledge is? You may lack the words to describe all these obscure city features but architects (or fans of architecture) will know them. They invested time (and money!) into learning this language because it was of use/relevant to them. There are so many areas of specialised knowledge that I'm positive that it's physically impossible to learn /all/ the words. Most of us make do with vague descriptives, adjectives, synonyms or crude similes. But you? You are a writer. You do not need the technical language; you have at your disposition rich vocabulary and techniques to compose and convey sense beyond the technical definition of each word used.

    As an example, what good is a word such as "frieze" to a reader that doesn't know it? Yes, it is the technical and correct name of the feature, but unless the reader wishes to (or can) search for the definition right away, that word is communicating nothing... /even/ if the reader has seen friezes and know what they are, but just ignore the architectonic term. Descriptive and/or evocative language will have a much greater chance of succeeding not only at communicating what you are trying to say, but also at creating an intellectual or emotional response from the reader.

    1. I dunno. I like technical language. Even if it's more obscure, it tends to be more succinct. And now that I (and most readers) have an online dictionary on hand pretty much all the time, having to occasionally look up words isn't that big a deal.

      If obscure or technical language is being employed as an affectation or a way to inflate poor ideas—well, that's something else entirely.

  3. I'm struck by how this connects to the Montessori gospel of "experience preceeds language." As an educator of young children, I have been trained that you provide language for something the child has encountered AFTER they have interacted with it. To give a term before the child has explored is to cheat that developmental moment. Maybe not always possible, but ideal . . .

    I also agree that the capacity to describe something is more important than a whole bucket of jargon!!

  4. My question is do you *need* to know what the thing pictured is? Does that knowledge have any value that you can see? It might, the possibility exists, but what's the likelihood?

    Some people put down computers and the internet for dis-incentivizing committing knowledge to memory, but I always question what areas of knowledge have value and deserve to be retained. The word 'sculpture' applies well enough to that grey thing; is the certainty of a more specific word worth the time and energy to find and commit it to memory, or to recall and use it when the opportunity presents itself?

    1. In most practical cases, it probably doesn't have much value—unless you're a specialist, and unless you're bothered about being unable to concisely articulate the things around you, which i am. ("That, that thing on the roof, that, uh, antennae...looking...thing. THAT thing. Just LOOK.")

      I imagine that when most of humanity consisted tribes or villages of sustenance farmers, there was comparatively little jargon: everyone was involved in the same basic occupations, everyone was fluent in the language of the field, the crops, the hearth. Human activity has become so multifaceted and elaborated that one person is very unlikely to know all the words for every object and/or event in their surroundings.

      Not that this is a gripe or a complaint.